Scandinavian gymnastics and Qigong

Mark Singleton wrote a book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, in which he questions the ancient roots of Yoga. Is it really old, ancient, or even Indian? You can read his article summarising his argument here.

“What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in asana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.” –

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

I really love discovering these odd curiosities of 19th and early 20th century European gymnastic or martial arts that look incredibly like what we practice in the Asian martial arts styles, Qigong or Yoga. The link between 19th century French Savate (kickboxing) and the Japanese version of Karate is another fascinating connection that I’ve looked at before.

Recently I watched another video about 19th century Swedish Free Gymnastics:

Swedish Free Gymnastics has long since declined, but was pretty popular in the 19th century. There are some great archive pictures and video of the movements in that video above, and they look incredibly like what we know in China as Qigong – the idea of slow, smooth, elegant movement with force balanced around the body. In fact, some of the positions look exactly like Qigong movements I’ve been taught and practiced myself.

“The Swedish system of gymnastics is distinguished from other methods in the fact that a special apparatus is not absolutely needed for its exercises. If any argument were necessary to prove the hygienic and intellectual benefits of physical exercise, in these days of varied athletics, a scrutiny of the handbook now under notice would excite due enthusiasm. The whole range of gymnastic performance, from the simplest to the most complex exercises, is herein put before the reader with explicit directions for practice, and with a gratifying abundance of illustrations. The fact that the English language has hitherto had no comprehensive manual on the Swedish system is the occasion of the publication ; the official service of Baron Posse confirms his fitness for the authorship of this book of rules; while in mechanical arrangement nothing seems to have been omitted that would induce fondness for gymnastic practice.”

Posse, Nils. The Swedish system of educational gymnastics. B

As the video says, the similarities have lead some people to wonder if Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) was actually the inspiration for these movements. There was, after all, a political connection between China and colonialist Europe powers in the 19th century, that culminating in the Opium Wars.

The author of the video sensibly disagrees with the connection to Tai Chi Chuan, and so do I. For a start, I think these movements from Sweden are likely older than Tai Chi Chuan, The general assumption amongst people is that Tai Chi Chuan must be really, really old, yet there’s no evidence of its existence before Yang LuChan arrived in Beijing in the 1860s.

But leaving the Tai Chi Chuan question aside, the movements of Swedish Free Gymnastics look more like Qigong than Tai Chi Chuan anyway, but there are records of Chinese health movements (“tao yin”) stretching back thousands of years in China, so I don’t think we can claim a European origin for Qigong. Some sets like the Muscle tendon change set are really famous.

However, I wouldn’t discount the role of influence. The Europeans arriving in China in the 19th century in large numbers and with superior military force resulted in huge changes. As China began to experience defeat at the hands of the European powers, it turned it attention to modernising and adopting these new methods or warfare, economics and exercise. We talked a lot about this in our podcast episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan.

As China looked to the West new ideas of commerce, military methods and politics were considered for the first time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some element of the gymnastics of the time slipped in as well, as it did in India, with Yoga.

Never let your knees go over your toes… or should you?

I remember when I started Tai Chi in the 90s, one of the things that was talked about a lot was that you should never let your knees go beyond the line of your toes in a forward stance.

YCF: Knees not extending past the line of the toes.

Letting this happen was always seen as unequivocally bad. Not only was knees beyond toes seen as structurally unsound (your weight is too far forward making you easy to pull off balance), but this was seen as the primary cause of the epidemic of so many Tai Chi people having bad knees.

The Snake Creeps Down posture in particular was quite often used as an example of a badly done posture by Western dilettantes.

But it always struck me as a bit odd that it was seen as being such a dangerous thing to do. If you were training the martial side of Tai Chi then you were being punched, thrown and armlocked on the regular. Worrying about your knees going over the line of your toes seemed a minor danger in comparrison.

Fast forward to 2021 and today I found out that a lot of BJJ people (an art that specialises in slowly destroying your body over time) were raving about the benefits of the method espoused by the Knees Over Toes Guy on YouTube, who had achieved great results reparing people’s knees using a traning methods that empahsises, yes, you guessed it, putting your knees beyond the line of your toes as much as possible.

Interesting. Here’s what he says:

A year went by with no results. In fact, I was certain I needed another surgery when a spark of truth finally presented itself…

“The athlete whose knees can go farthest and strongest over his or her toes is the most protected.”

Everything I had been taught up to this point by dozens of trainers and physical therapists was very clear: NO KNEES OVER TOES — but when I read this statement, I immediately knew it was true.

Knees Over Toes Guy

The write up of his method is here. And here’s a video of his basic method is here:

The logic seems sound to me, so if you’ve got knee trouble, you might want to give it a try.

It makes me think – is the epidemic of Tai Chi people with bad knees (if it really exists) caused by the knees going over the toes? Or is it more likely because that group self-selects for other unhealthy behviours?

Why you should train your martial art like a sport

“Sport” is kind of a trigger word for a lot of martial art practitioners, at least some of the ones I’ve met! So telling them they should train their martial art more like a sport usually goes down like a cold bucket of sick, but really I think they should listen.

“There are no rules on the street!”

“I train for the street, dude!”

“You mean a sport like netball, right?”

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

When here’s the thing: Training your martial art like a ‘martial art’ is often an excuse for not working very hard and not really pressure testing anything you do.

Sport is a sweaty, dificult, thing to do that usually involves doing something pretty athletic (unless you count darts). Sport is also structured. Quite often in a martial art there is no real training methodology. People just turn up, do a few forms, practice a few safe applications against little or no resistance then go home again. The learning process can be a bit random.

I should stress, I don’t really think that there’s anything wrong with that, depending on your motivations for training, which often change as you age. Just feeling good about doing something is certainly reason enough to do it, but I think you should ask yourself, what progress are you really making? And, worse, are you becoming delusional?

Sports, in contrast, tend to be very structured. You train attributes specifically, and you engage in a focussed practice where you can drill to increase your ability in tightly defined things. Sometime those things are measured. You sit down and discuss progress with your coach. You troubleshoot and then you give it a go against somebody who is going to be uncooperative and gives you feedback. That’s real testing against nature – the sort of thing a human shaman would engage in 10,000 years ago.

Martial arts also have strange rules that sports don’t have – we have to call people odd titles like Sifu or Professor. There’s bowing and etiquette that looks strange to people outside the system. I can understand the cultural reasons for a lot of these things, but I often wonder that when these arts are put into a different culture, whether some of these things should be left behind because they’re not helpful and, in fact, can stand in the way of progress. For example, the little quirks like bowing to photos of dead guys or using a 1-2-3 clap system can gradually breed a cult-like quality of obedience that makes us stop questioning things.

I saw a brilliant video of a Muay Thai coach recently. I love the tiny details he’s giving. Muay Thai is an interesting martial art because it’s probably the most traditional martial art remaining on the planet, but it’s also a sport. It is undoubtedly effective and trained at the highest level in popular combat sports. I think there’s something to learn from that.

As I said earlier, I don’t think we need to make all martial arts into competative sports, but I think we can take elements of the sporting approach and apply it to what we’re doing, regardless of the martial art we’re doing.

Finally, the inspiration for this post is the latest brilliant episode of the BJJ Mental Models podcast to featuring Priit Mihkelson, about how to train your martial art like a sport. Give it a listen.

It’s also on YouTube:

How to make your own martial arts staff

Highland survivalist Tom Langhorne shows you how to make your own martial arts staff, from selecting and harvesting the wood sustainably to crafting and refining it. If you need a little project to work on in lockdown, then this could be it!

He’s also got a great video that shows a comparrison of different staff fighting styles, which incluides: Jogo dau pau, Scottish Quarterstaff, German Quarter Staff and Japanese Bo,

And a video on the staff in general and its Scottish history:

The birth of Kuo Shu (Guo Shu Guan)

If you practice Chinese martial arts then you need to know your history, and especially what happened in the early 20th century with the Kuo Shu (Guo Shu) movement.

This was before the Wu Shu movement, which came later.

This excellent video by Will from Monkey Steals Peach explains what happened and why, and why Sun Lu Tang became such an important figure in Tai Chi history.

 

 

Trust me, I’m a Doctor

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The most recent episode of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor featured Tai Chi!

“Michael Mosley finds out whether t’ai chi can offer the same health benefits as vigorous exercise – without all the huffing and puffing. ”

They compare the same time spent doing Tai Chi to the time spent doing Zumba, which is far more vigorous. Is he really “doing Tai Chi”? Well, that’s up for debate, but the results are surprising.

If you get iPlayer then you can watch it at the link below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bnbjlc/trust-me-im-a-doctor-series-8-episode-6

 

The whole Chen Tai Chi curriculum, in video form

Well, this page is interesting. It’s from Bosco Baek (and some of Bosco’s students) who is based in Los Angeles, USA, and from the looks of things, and it looks like a video reference for the whole Chen style Taijiquan curriculum!

https://chenbing.org/videos

Chen Bing Taiji Academy (陳炳太極院) was established by Master Chen Bing who is a 20th generation representative of Chen Family Taijiquan.   Its headquarter is located in Chenjiagou, Wenxian County, Henan Province, China. – the birth place of Taijiquan.  Master Chen Bing is a direct descendant of Chen Wangting (陳王廷), the creator of Taijiquan.

That’s very generous of him to share these videos. It’s fascinating. Things I’ve noticed so far:

  1. The advanced stepping and silk reeling he shows shares a lot of similarities with Bagua (the tea cups-style exercises of Bagua Zhang are obviously silk reeling exercises, so this should be no surprise, but it’s the first time I’ve seen a Chen guy walking a circle, like they do in Bagua).
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8JBxWQz3bg
  3. The advanced push hands videos look a lot like ‘wrestling without being allowed to grab the legs’. Looks like good basic training in stand-up grappling:
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjiw-JAl9YI
  5. The ‘primary explosive power’ video combines all the basic ‘fa jing’ moves you find in the Chen ‘old frame’ form into a nice little sequence:
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqcFfZaYPYA
  7. There’s a Yoga sequence at the end! Obviously he finds that a useful addition to Tai Chi. More weight to the idea that the primary origins of the ideas of body movement in Tai Chi and Yoga originate from the same source (or at least are compatible).
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXT67_vgncw

Ken Gullette’s new book: Internal body mechanics

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A quick heads-up for internal martial artists: Ken Gullette has a new book out that looks really interesting called, “Internal body mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi”.

I haven’t read it, or even seen a copy, but I thought I’d give it a mention because it looks pretty good. It sounds like it gets straight down to the business of teaching you how to move and dispenses with the usual boring histories and form photos. Ken’s bio of how long he’s trained and who he as trained with looks pretty good too.

In Ken’s own words:

Basically, I wanted to write the book that I wish I had when I began studying the internal arts back in 1987. If I was able to read it back then, it would have saved me many years and thousands of dollars in class fees. Based on some of the martial artists I have met during the past 20-something years, I know there are millions of internal arts students who are not learning these skills.

The six fundamental body mechanics for internal power include:

** Establishing and maintaining the ground path at all times.

** Using peng jin at all times along with the ground path.

** Using whole-body movement — when one parts move, all parts move.

** Silk-Reeling “Energy” — the spiraling movement that adds power to techniques.

** Dan T’ien rotation — guiding the internal strength and power as the body moves.

** Using the kua properly — opening and closing the kua, like a buoy in the ocean, helping the body stay balanced as incoming force changes.

You can find out more details about the book here, and it’s on Amazon US and UK.

Your daily Tai Chi ritual – creating order out of chaos

backlit clouds dawn dusk

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Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).

I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉

But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.

A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.

I also like Scott’s later quote,

Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order

This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.

two man in white shorts fighting using sword during daytime

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It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.

Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.

Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.

adventure alps amazing beautiful

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